Box Cameras

Imperial Box Camera by Bob Lansdale

Toronto. Today is Boxing day – or week, or month depending on the marketing pitch! Regardless, it is a fitting day to remember the box camera. I had box cameras as a kid – old Kodaks I took apart; a baby brownie in bakelite plastic; a Brownie Hawk-eye with a flashgun (also in bakelite).

The box style was made from wood, metal, cardboard or plastic. Some had a grained leather covering; others a black paper served the purpose. The lens was usually a simple single element design but occasionally a more complex multi-element affair. Shutters were usually primitive as well. Various designs and styles served as a view finder; anywhere from a simple pointing device to a separate tiny lens and mirror that helped frame the subject too.

The icon for this post is a fancier Imperial Box camera sold at our spring fair in 2013. The viewer gave a bigger view of the scene to be photographed while its placement made portrait format the preferred framing choice.

These basic cameras go back many decades. They are perhaps the simplest of camera designs. The box determines the framing and holds the distance between lens and media (film) fixed. A small aperture – say f/16 guarantees the camera will be in focus from about 6  feet to infinity. The down side of course is the slow speed necessitating use out of doors or with powerful lights or flash indoors. The lens could be a simple meniscus; the shutter a simple spring loaded plate that operated at about 1/25th of a second.

My grandmother used just such a box camera to take pictures of her family outdoors from about 1920 to the 1940s when the advent of war saw her children begin to marry or join the battle in Europe. She kept a selection of prints in an album documenting her family as it grew in size and age.

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